In 2010, over 507,000 runners crossed the finish line in 625 marathons in the U.S., according to the trade association Running USA. As impressive as these totals are, however, I doubt that any of the runners or race staff who were involved in those races faced greater challenges than those encountered in the production of the Beirut Marathon in 2006.
Organized on the heels of a devastating war with Israel, the Beirut Marathon incubated in a caldron of intense political turmoil, as assassinations and street protests kept the city tottering on the brink of chaos. The killing of a young government official, Pierrre Gemayel, just five days before the race threatened to derail everything for which the dedicated race staff had labored. Lebanon then went into three days of national mourning, as thousands of people massed in downtown Beirut to grieve and to demand peace.
As lovingly recounted in the 2008 film For The Marathon Beirut: For The Love Of Lebanon, directed & produced by Deborah Harse, the decision by the Beirut Marathon Association not to derail their November marathon, but instead only postpone it one week, was a declaration of their faith not only in the resiliency of the Lebanese people, but in the the marathon as a vehicle for promoting peace and unity. When the mourning period ended, race organizers decided to hold an impromptu 26.2 mile marathon for two British and one Dutch runner who had come to Lebanon for the race but who could not change their plane tickets to accommodate the change in the official race date. Accompanying them was a South African and a Lebanese runner who was also the first Lebanese to summit Mount Everest. Race officials arranged for a police escort, a Red Cross van, and water stations; a powerful display of their determination to honor their promise to provide a race, as well as the perseverance of the runners in sticking with their travel plans.
But then, the very next day, and just three days before the rescheduled race start, opposition party Hezbollah called for a demonstration in the central square to demand the ouster of the existing government. This seemed to be the preverbal straw that broke the camel’s back, as the race staff seemed to waver in their resolve. As race packets sat unclaimed and the expo resembled a ghost-town, the race staff seemed to be preparing for the worst. Instead, race morning saw the arrival of over 20,000 competitors, lined up for the marathon, 5K and 10K.
Throughout the film, the runners and citizens referred again and again to the race’s tagline – “For the Love of Lebanon” – and declared their determination to unite for peace, for progress, for love, and for hope, by making race day a reality.
This is not a film about politics, war, or history. In a way, despite it’s title, it’s not even about Lebanon. It’s about the power of an idea – that running can bring people together in a way that perhaps no other activity can; that it can heal not just a body, but a community, a city, and perhaps a nation. As one staffer put it, quoting Nelson Mandela, sports can go where politics could not.
This, then, is the real meaning of the marathon. Throw away ancient stories about Phidippides; they’ve only been collecting dust where they lay. Forget, too, stories of personal perseverance and courage by those who endure. These stories inspire, but they are still only about the individual. Instead, think of the broader meaning of the marathon as a civilizing force, a declaration of hope for the progress of humankind. In war-torn regions around in the world, in nations emerging from civil unrest, and in cities struggling against blight, marathons emerge like wildflowers on a charred landscape. It’s as if we share a common belief that if we can manage to come together to run, there is hope for the future. After all, how bad could a place be if they can host a race?
For the Love of Lebanon doesn’t necessarily make me want to rush over to Beirut to run; footage of the race itself shows nothing memorable about the course itself. But it does make me glad – for all of us – that there is such a thing as a marathon.